Yad Chaim Weizmann


Chaim Weizmann was born in 1874 in a traditional Jewish home in the village of Motal, at the Western edge of the Russian Empire. He was the third of fifteen children of Rachel Leah and Oizer Weizmann. His father was known as a learned man and an industrious merchant. His parents insisted that the children receive both a Jewish education and a broad general education. Throughout his life, Chaim Weizmann was deeply connected to his siblings and their children. Ten of the eleven siblings who reached adulthood made Aliyah.

Chaim Weizmann finished his studies with honors at the Pinsk high school, was attracted to the spirit of the Enlightenment, and decided to continue his studies in the subject of chemistry in Germany and Switzerland. As but a young man, he decided to first establish himself in his profession, with the hope that in the future he would be able to contribute to the advancement of the sciences in the Palestine. He was deeply influenced by the philosophies of Ahad Ha’am and Herzl. While still a child in Motal, he devoted himself to the study of Hebrew, and in Pinsk he became involved in Hovevei Zion groups. In 1899 he received his PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland. (His doctorate related to electrolysis and creating dyes). In the same year, he joined the Organic Chemistry Department at the University of Geneva.

In Geneva, the two primary pillars of his life, Zionism and science, merged. During these years, the beginnings of his leadership as a Zionist became evident. In addition, he began to enjoy the fruits of his financial success as a chemist, as a result of patents that he sold to industry. In Geneva, he met his future wife, Vera Chatzman, a medical student at the time, who would loyally accompany him in all of his activities.

Weizmann did not see Judaism purely as a religion, but as an entire cultural entity—a nation that was ready to return and dwell securely in its land. He opposed the proposal that Uganda could serve as a territorial replacement for the Palestine (1903). In this, he connected with the Russian Zionists, who also rejected Herzl’s surprising proposal. At this point, his unique ability to maneuver between Eastern European Jews and Western Jews became evident. Weizmann was one of the founders of the Democratic Party, the first opposition party in the history of Zionism, which called for democratization and emphasized cultural activity while struggling against expressions of religious fanaticism.

In 1904, Weizmann received a job offer from the Chemistry Department of the University of Manchester in England, a country that, to him, symbolized freedom, moderation and political realism. Weizmann became well integrated into British life. He became a British citizen, and England was his primary home for over thirty years. There, he experienced years of success both as a scientist and a Zionist leader. These two pillars of his life merged, and were at the basis of the process that led to the Balfour Declaration, which was a historic turning point for the Zionist movement.

Chaim and Vera Weizmann were married in 1906, after Vera received her certification as a doctor. Their eldest son, Benjamin (Benjy), was born in 1907. In the same year, Weizmann made his first visit to the Palestine. It was a period that was difficult yet filled with inspiration for the Jewish settlement. Weizmann became interested in the process of purchasing lands, and in the physical challenges of the idealistic settlers, who lived in communes in tough conditions in the communities of the First Aliyah. He was disappointed by the poverty of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem and its dependence on the money of the Halukka (a system of Jewish charity). In addition, he investigated the feasibility of modern industrial initiatives, a first step on the path that would characterize him many years later. This visit sharpened his awareness of the need to strengthen the settlement of the land (what became known as “Practical Zionism”), alongside continued political activity and lobbying. He also became more certain of the need to establish a Hebrew university, which would serve as a focus of modern, Jewish, intellectual life. His integrated perspective later became known by the name of “Synthetic Zionism.”

Until World War I, Weizmann continued to develop his position among the British Zionists. He developed relationships with key personality on the British scene, including journalists and politicians. His friendship with C. P. Scott, legendary editor of The Manchester Guardian, opened many doors to him. Due to his personal charm and intelligence, he became the primary subject of discussion on the topic of Zionism, among non-Jews. During the same time period, he made impressive breakthroughs in the area of organic chemistry.

With the outbreak of World War I, the Zionist leadership chose to adopt a neutral position, due to a reality in which Jews were fighting wearing the uniforms of all of the involved armies. Chaim Weizmann chose a different approach. He adopted a pro-British policy because of his intuition that the war was going to change the world order and that Britain had a high chance of taking territories in the Middle East from the Ottoman Empire. Weizmann worked to persuade the British that the success of Zionism is not just a moral imperative but is also a British interest. Most surprisingly, his efforts connected to his scientific research.

Weizmann invented a new method for producing synthetic acetone from corn, a discovery that constituted a significant contribution to the war effort in Britain. His discovery had commercial and strategic value since acetone was essential to ammunition production, in order to produce cordite explosive propellants. Without acetone, a cloud of smoke is created whenever a cannon is fired, thereby exposing the cannon’s location. The original raw material used for acetone production was located in areas that had been conquered by Germany. Weizmann’s discovery saved the British ammunition industry from distress. He thereby gained the faith and admiration of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Balfour, and the Munitions Minister, Lloyd George. Under his supervision, an industry for the production of synthetic acetone was established in Britain.

Weizmann leveraged his position and connections to advance the Zionist idea. With his great skill at negotiation, he created a position for himself as the representative of an exiled government. In February, 1917, he was appointed as the President of the British Zionist Federation. He worked to persuade the British Government to publish a statement supporting the rights of Jews in the Palestine. His cause was helped, among other things, by changes within the British Government that led to the appointment of Lloyd George as Prime Minister and Arthur Balfour as Foreign Secretary. At the end of an exhausting process, the Balfour Declaration was born. This document, which was formally given to him by Lord Rothschild, was published on November 2, 1917. In it, the British Government expressed its support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the Palestine. Several days later, Britain conquered the southern part of the Palestine. These events had an immediate impact on the entire Jewish nation. There were additional partners in this success, but the achievement is generally identified with Chaim Weizmann, who quickly became the prominent Zionist leader of his generation.

Throughout the war, Weizmann assisted Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Pinhas Rutenberg in establishing the Jewish Legion, which joined the British Army and fought on several fronts. In 1916, Vera and Chaim had their second son, Michael. In his work, Weizmann progressed systematically, as is natural for someone who has been trained in the scientific method.

In 1918, Weizmann toured the Palestine as the head of the Zionist Commission for Palestine, the Jewish organization appointed to implement the Balfour Declaration. In the Palestine, he found a Jewish settlement recovering from the hardships of the war. He was impressed by the activity in the settlements and in Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city. In Jerusalem, he laid the cornerstone for the Hebrew University.

Weizmann was aware of the dangers of the hatred between Zionism and the Arab National Movement, and tried to create an agreement between the two movements. In the summer of 1918, in an effort to enable peaceful coexistence between the two nations, he met with Emir Faisal, the leader of the Great Arab Revolt and the son of Sharif Hussein, near Aqaba. Faisal expressed sympathy for the goals of Zionism, which were similar to the nationalistic aspirations of the Arabs. In January 1919, the two signed an agreement of cooperation between Arabs and Jews in the development of the Palestine. This vision, for the establishment of a productive future for the two nations, never came to fruition. The riots of 1921 strengthened Weizmann’s suspicions, and the relationship between Zionism and the Arab world became one of conflict.

In parallel, Weizmann continued his diplomatic activities, striving to ensure that the Balfour Declaration would translate into practical policy. He obtained the support of the Secretary State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill, for his request that the mandate granted to Britain by the League of Nations (1922) would make the Balfour Declaration binding. The success of this process represented recognition on the part of the international community of Zionism’s goals. Even before this, the British military rule in the Palestine had been replaced by a civil government under a High Commissioner.

In 1921 Weizmann was elected as President of the World Zionist Congress. He traveled to the U.S., and together with Albert Einstein, managed a fundraising campaign for the establishment of the Hebrew University. In 1925, in the presence of Lord Balfour, Weizmann dedicated the university in an impressive ceremony at Mr. Scopus. He gave much weight to the development of a modern economy in Israel, and saw the great importance of integrating science and industry. As could be expected of a liberal, he encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit. At the same time, throughout the 1920s, he began to develop an unwritten alliance with the Labor Movement in the Palestine. In contrast to the approach of the American Zionists under the leadership of Justice Louis Brandeis, Weizmann supported the strengthening of national institutions, seeing them as an element that organized and led the developing economy.  Weizmann, despite his bourgeois nature, was admired until the end of his days by broad circles of people on the Zionist left.

Despite years of activity, the Jewish settlement was faced with economic crises connected to international crises. In response, in 1929 Weizmann founded the Jewish Agency for the Palestine. With its establishment, the Zionist movement, which until the Balfour Declaration had represented a minority of the Jewish nation, became the most obvious representative of world Jewry. In the course of the decade that followed the end of World War I, Weizmann enjoyed the status of being a leader both of the Zionist movement and, to a large degree, of the Jewish world.

In 1930, following the bloody 1929 riots, the British Government published a White Paper written by Lord Passfield. England began to retract its promises, and Zionist activities ran into difficulties. Weizmann fought against this trend, however, the crisis between Britain and the Zionist movement slowly eroded his leadership. He was not elected to Presidency at the Seventeenth Zionist Congress (Basel, 1931). From then on, there was a rift between him and the Revisionist Movement and he criticized it extensively, despite his personal admiration for Jabotinsky. In the time until his re-election four years later, he nevertheless remained involved in a variety of aspects of Zionist activity, while also returning to his scientific work.

With the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Weizmann dedicated himself to the efforts to assist European Jewry. He hoped to help leading scientists in Germany make Aliyah and to integrate them at the Sieff Institute, which he was working to establish, as well as in other places. In parallel, he was active in the Youth Immigration movement. He even continued his diplomatic efforts, this time for the sake of Jewish refugees, with a limited degree of success.

The Daniel Sieff Research Institute opened in 1934 and became, in 1949, the Weizmann Institute of Science. Chaim Weizmann was its first President, and Ernst David Bergmann was its Scientific Director. Next to the Institute, Vera and Chaim built their home, which was designed by the Jewish German architect Erich Mendelsohn.

Weizmann returned to his position as president of the World Zionist Organization in 1935. The years until the outbreak of World War II focused on attempts to ease the Jewish refugee problem, expanding the infrastructure of the settlement in the Palestine, and dealing with the Arab Revolt. During this period, Weizmann worked very well with David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Mapai and Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive. The two of them supported a policy of restraint, and decided to support the conclusions of the Peel Commission (1937) which called for the partition of the land into two states, Jewish and Arab. For the first time, the leaders of Zionism were expressly supporting the principle of the establishment of an independent state with a Jewish majority, alongside a state with an Arab majority. The Arab leadership, led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, absolutely rejected this proposal. The conflict became ruthless and additional attempts at mediation only worsened the tensions. At the beginning of the Arab Revolt, Weizmann and Moshe Shertok met with Nuri al-Said, Iraq’s Foreign Minister. The negotiations broke down due to the Arab demand to immediately stop all Aliyah. These failures, and a growing pro-Arab sentiment in Britain, were the backdrop to the publication of the third White Paper (May, 1939), which strictly limited Aliyah. Anti-British sentiments in the settlement became even stronger, and as a result, Weizmann’s position was damaged.

Weizmann himself was aware, to the degree possible, of the looming disaster threatening European Jewry. In the summer of 1928, after the failure of the Évian Conference to provide a solution to the Jewish refugee problem, Weizmann commented, “The world seemed to be divided into two parts–those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.” British policy on the eve of World War II had tragic ramifications for the fate of European Jewry. On August 22, 1939, Weizmann parted from the delegates of the Twenty-First Zionist Congress in Geneva with these words: “There is darkness all around us and we cannot see through the clouds. It is with a heavy heart that I take my leave…If, as I hope, we are spared in life and our work continues, who knows—perhaps a new light will shine upon us from the thick, dark gloom…We will return and meet. We will return and meet for our joint work for our Land and our People…There are things that cannot but happen, and things that without them it is impossible to describe the world. Those who survive will continue to work, to fight, to live, until a new dawn will rise on better days. Toward this dawn, I bless you. May we meet again in peace.”

During World War II, in coordination with David Ben-Gurion, Weizmann provided assistance to the British war effort against Germany. He utilized industries throughout the Palestine, as well as the laboratories at the Sieff Institute, to help provide for the needs of the British army. He himself went back to his scientific work with the intention of assisting the British and the Americans in creating synthetic rubber. At the same time, he worked to promote the creation of the Jewish Brigade. Until it had been established, he encouraged the youth in the Palestine to join different units in the British army. The Brigade was established in 1944. It participated in battles, and many of its soldiers remained in Europe after the war to provide assistance to the Jewish refugees.

Benjy and Michael, the children of Vera and Chaim Weizmann, also fought for the British. In 1942, Weizmann received the bitter news that the plane flown by Michael, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, had been shot down, and that his son was missing. Weizmann did not stop his Zionist activities. That year, he was very active in the U.S., and he first met the U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His political contacts did not have an impact on the immigration policies of the Allies. He was also unsuccessful, during the advanced stages of the war, in mobilizing the Allies to act directly against the Nazi death machine. Thus, despite the success in establishing a Jewish Brigade, and despite the assistance given to the British war effort—an effort that had practical and moral dimensions—World War II ended with Weizmann and the rest of the Zionist leadership feeling a sense of helplessness that, without a state, they had been unable to prevent this greatest of tragedies.

Beginning in 1942, the leadership of the Jewish Agency, with Chaim Weizmann at its head, undertook to convert what had heretofore been defined as a national home into an independent state. It can be said that the flourishing cooperation between Weizmann and the Labor Movement allowed the development of the organizational, economic and cultural foundations that the Jewish settlement later came to depend on—beginning in the 1920s and, even more, throughout the 1930s. This infrastructure allowed for the success of the process that matured in 1948 under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion.

The relationship between the two men was complicated, but they succeeded in overcoming most of their disagreements and dealing with the fateful challenges of their time. But during this time period, at the end of the war, faced with the shameful policy of Britain vis-à-vis illegal immigrants and Holocaust survivors, the activist spirit became stronger throughout the Jewish settlement. Again, Weizmann was perceived as comprising, and again he became politically weakened. The fact that he worked without a party was also an obstacle. In addition, he was beset by medical problems. He was absolutely opposed to the terrorist tactics of seceding organizations.  He viewed terror as a strategic error and an ethical disaster. He was particular angry about the murder of Lord Moyne, which took place while World War II was still raging; and about the explosion of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (July, 1946). That same year, he summarized his attitude to violence at the Zionist Congress by stating, “Zion will be redeemed with justice—and not by any other means.”

The tensions between Weizmann and Ben-Gurion reached their peak in December, 1946, when Weizmann was removed from Presidency of the Zionist movement. However, soon enough, his diplomatic talents and abilities of persuasion were needed again. His involvement in the visit of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in Israel in the summer of 1947 was crucial in the decision to include the Negev within the borders of the State of Israel. Later, he used his influence in the U. N. General Assembly’s vote (November 29, 1947) for the partition of the land into two states, Jewish and Arab. In the end, it was his meeting with Harry Truman that convinced the U.S. President to support an independent State of Israel, despite the reservations of the State Department.

With the establishment of the State, while still in the U.S., Weizmann was appointed President of the Provisional State Council of Israel. In February, 1949, after the first Knesset had been established, Weizmann was elected as first President of the State of Israel. He was elected a second time in 1951, and he served in this role until his death. His house in Rehovot served, during those years, as the President’s House. To his sorrow the role was primarily symbolic, but due to his tremendous personal standing, he continued to enjoy extensive public support and international prestige. During the years of his Presidency, his health weakened, and he slowly lost his sight. However, he maintained his clarity of thought, wit and unique brilliance.

One of his first tasks as President was to advance the cause of Israel’s acceptance in the United Nations. Again, he traveled to New York, and again, he met the U.S. president. Weizmann expressed the desire of the State of Israel for reconciliation with the Arab world, including finding a resolution to the problem of the refugees. In his efforts, he was assisted by a young diplomat named Abba Even. On May 11, 1949, Israel was accepted as a member of the U.N.

In November, 1949, the Weizmann Institute of Science was dedicated. Distinguished scientists from around the world participated in an official ceremony, and recognition was given to the centrality of scientific research in the young State of Israel. The development of the Institute was a source of pride to Chaim Weizmann in his later years. Leadership of the Institute was gradually transferred to his devoted assistant, Meir Weisgal, who recruited his many friends in the U.S. toward this purpose. Weisgal, a colorful personality without a scientific education, created a suitable infrastructure for researchers without becoming involved in the Institute’s scientific aspects. Young scientists were promoted to senior positions, including Ephraim Katchalski Katzir, who later became the fourth President of Israel.

Dr. Chaim Weizmann died on November 9, 1952 at his home in Rehovot, at the age of 78. As per his request, he was buried on his own estate. Weizmann was one of the Zionist founders and leaders who merited to see the fulfillment of his vision in his lifetime. Many of the State’s achievements are the result of his far-reaching attitudes. There are also challenges and missions that he saw, which have not yet been fulfilled, the most significant of which is the establishment of a model society living in prosperity and peace.

A. D.

October 2010